Three weeks ago former Gathering of Developers founders Mike Wilson and Harry Miller announced the opening of a new developer-friendly publisher, Gamecock. With one of its first games, Auran's Fury, on show at GDC, we present a Q&A with Wilson to find out more about the new company.
What have you been up to between Gathering and now which has led to founding Gamecock?
Since Gathering I've been doing some video and film work for a bit. But in 2002 Take Two invited me to go back and work for Gathering and I got to find out how well our games had done for them after the acquisition. It was a rare insight into how well it was for them.
We never really wanted to sell G.O.D but we did and we ended up leaving the industry a little angry, feeling that we had failed in the grand crusade - but then again, everyone made some money, and Take 2 made a lot of money. So when I went back to Take Two I tried to approach it from a developers' point of view and it gave me hindsight that we had a good thing going before and that with proper funding, and the ability to do console games, it was worth trying again.
On returning with Gamecock, you said the industry has become stale - how so?
All the sequels and licenses... it's this inevitable cycle the industry goes through, especially after a lot of consolidation and when there's fear over a console transition everyone becomes very conservative.
The main problem is that all of the money going into games is coming through these public companies that have the same problems - they're forced to keep growing and try to wallet-whip games, but that's like Big Hollywood and that doesn't lead to most creative endeavours. So our opportunity is to be able to take chances on original games but have the funding to do them properly with big marketing and everything you expect.
So you're going to be doing what the big publishers claim to do, but you won't screw developers over?
We just have a focus on original games from independent developers - we're not looking to buy up developers or buy their IP, we just want to publish their games and have a good relationship with them, rather than... [laughs] ...well, right now for the current model the only answer when there is trouble between a publisher and a developer is either all-out war or the publisher just buys them and takes control. The idea of buying artists is really not the best model long-term, it just doesn't make sense to me.
On the Gamecock site you say quarterly projections and bad producers are anathema to the creative process. What would you say to a developer tempted to sign to a publisher beset by those problems? Would you warn them off?
It depends. I was lucky enough to start my career at a strong independent developer that fought for its IP - and thank god, because now someone like GT Interactive would have owned Doom and Wolfenstein! But if the developer is strong enough and truly independent and happy to fight its rights then they'll be fine. If you have someone on staff whose job it is to keep the legal side in line and fight with the publisher constantly than yeah you can do well with one of those guys.
But that's not the way we work - we give everyone the same kind of deal that those guys from Epic or id would demand from the big publishers, and everyone who works with us gets the same good deal.
A lot of newcomers say the real and only way for developers to survive is go straight to digital distribution, but you guys are focused on disk distribution in the short term?
Yeah, realistically if you're making big games then you have to go through retail - that's where the big business is. Digital distribution is wonderful and is a great alternative but it doesn't work for big console games.
But we'll keep our ears to the ground and be involved in any and all technologies that emerge - we basically look at ourselves as a service company that helps developers reach gamers and we'll use any and all means necessary to get a game into gamers hands. But that still means retail stores and a box by and large.
Why now to start this business? Is there a growing tide towards valuing the developers' position in the market?
It's an inevitable realisation that will happen - it's just a matter of how much time. It took forever for the industry to realise it was an entertainment business rather than a packaged good or toy business. Once you've figured that out you can look at every other entertainment business and realise that the talents, the creators, are the ones that matter, the secret sauce - and everything else is about money. You can then promote creators, rather than boost your own brand, and let them connect to fans.
But by that same regard, one of the reasons people get trapped into terrible contracts is because a game costs so much money and they need to offset costs by signing everything over to a publisher. So is it just an inherently broken way of working?
It is. And it's not that the guys that run these companies aren't smart - they are - but Wall Street demands you keep growing. Investors want you to have a massive head count, you to own properties, and own distribution facilities - all of these things that really have very little to do with doing a good job or bringing a good game to market. We're only going to focus on the things that allow you to do a good job or make a great game.
When we sold Gathering in 2000 we were 12 people and we did $100m in business that year. So all of those things publishers are told are necessary are not actually needed to ship a hit game. Unfortunately now they are necessary - but perhaps that will change, and maybe Wall Street will not want the same things out of these guys that they wanted before. But I'm banking on us having a little time before then so we can do well!
How will distribution work for you given that you are an independent publisher?
In the US we're partnering with independent distributors that ship games but are not part of a competitor. It's not a tough business here - there's not a lot of money in it - but if you've got accounts set up with all the major retailers it just comes down to how much money you've got spend on marketing. It's harder in Europe as there are more accounts and you have to have a proper distribution in place, so in that region we'll probably start by co-publishing initially and then eventually putting our own PR and marketing people on the ground and using a distributor.